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Queer Steampunk Fantasy Meets Murder Mystery in Raven, Fire and Ice

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Steampunk seems to be making a comeback in fantasy literature—or maybe it never left and I just haven’t been paying attention. Regardless, I’ve been seeing more and more queer steampunk fantasy in particular, which has got to be exciting for queer fans who love the genre and have always wanted to see themselves represented. The latest to cross my desk is Nita Round’s Raven, Fire and Ice, the first in her Touch of Truth Series. If you’re looking for a trio of fleshed out queer protagonists to root for and aren’t afraid of blood, this is one to check out.

A Brief (Spoiler Free) Run-Down

Lucinda Ravensburgh sees the truth in everything she touches. When Captain Magda Stoner of the airship Verity, asks for her help in a very strange and messy crime, Lucinda cannot refuse. From that moment on, Lucinda’s life is changed forever. She discovers, no matter what the obstacle, nor the troubles they encounter, finding the truth is paramount.

The Good Stuff

As difficult as good queer representation is to come by, finding queer poly representation in fiction can be next to impossible. That Inevitable Victorian Thing blew me away with its ending (I have yet to read The Fifth Season but it is on my reading list). So, needless to say, when I find books that have queer poly dynamics, I’m thrilled beyond measure.

In this regard, Raven, Fire and Ice did not disappoint. Thus far in the series, Lucinda, Magda, and Ascara are still exploring their dynamic, but I adore the subtext and tension between the three of them. They’re unique, well-rounded, and well-fleshed out female characters. One fleshed out queer female protagonist is a blessing, but three? That’s a feast!

Imagine, if you would, the best final evolution of Sansa Stark possible (from the A Song of Ice and Fire books of course, not the show). Then give her Brienne of Tarth and Asha Greyjoy (also from the books) as her right- and left-hand women. Then make them all queer and potential lovers in a poly threesome and you have Lucinda, Magda, and Ascara. Lucinda’s charisma, empathy, self-confidence, and skill serve her well as the primary protagonist. Magda’s stoic calmness and sense of justice make her an ideal second, and Ascara’s sly comments and more impulsive behavior act as an excellent balance to Magda’s more measured approach. When you put all three of these ladies together, you can see just why they work so well as a team, both in terms of their quest and romantically. In short, I love these ladies and can’t wait to see more of their adventures together.

The mystery surrounding the blood is well done, and I loved the investigative plot thread. Round clearly knows how to write crime, even crime of a more magical nature. Fantasy setting plus a murder plot? Yes please. It’s two of my favorite genres put together, and now that I’ve seen it, I want more stories with these elements together.

Nita Round uses Lucinda’s magical ‘truth seeing’ to good effect in developing that plot thread, which is a joy to read because the idea behind psychometry, as she calls it, is fascinating. While on paper not that much different than, say, the way ‘seeing’ someone’s memories worked iZombie, Raven, Fire and Ice didn’t feel the same at all reading it. Round took an idea that’s been done before in other media and made it her own in a really compelling way. That’s the mark of a good writer: someone who can make an ‘old’ idea feel new again.

Potential Drawbacks

While Round’s scripting of the criminal and investigative scenes worked beautifully, I found some of the magic-focused scenes confusing. The scene toward the middle of the book where Lucinda interacts with a new tower in particular left me a bit vague on what exactly had happened. Granted, certain action elements and implications of this scene seemed to have been left intentionally mysterious—perhaps to be fleshed out in one of the sequels?—so I’m not sure if my confusion was intentional on the author’s part or not. However, there’s a fine line between ‘air of mystery because magic’ and ‘I have no idea what just happened.’ For me, certain moments fell too far into the latter, but your mileage may vary.

The book also has a few pacing issues, mostly due to the magic-oriented scenes. The final confrontation, a magical one, felt rushed, especially after all the buildup in the preceding pages. I’m also a bit confused on the action beats. They could have been fleshed out a bit more, which would have drawn out the encounter in a more satisfying way.

Then there’s the previously mentioned scene with Lucinda and the Raven tower. On the one hand, the specific scene with Lucinda and the tower is absolutely necessary for the plot to progress the way it does. At the same time, it also feels like an aside, especially in hindsight. It puts the main murder mystery plot on hold for several chapters, and I think pacing suffers as a result. Once again, this might be a mileage may vary issue. If you’re as much invested in the magic as the murder, it probably won’t bother you. Since I was more heavily invested in solving the crime, such a long detour didn’t work as well for me.

This scene in particular also raises the issue of the racial dynamics in the book. Before you rush ahead, I will say there’s nothing horribly racist about the book. However, there are some dynamics that, while I’m absolutely certain are unintentional, still aren’t that great. The malevolent power behind the crimes committed in the book, Sh’Na, comes from Africa, specifically Egypt. The first follower of Sh’Na that we meet is a black boy, and the other adherent is also racially coded as non-white. With few other primary characters of color, this didn’t sit well with me.

Neither did Lucinda, a white woman from the Angles (the book’s analogue to England), coming to Ame’Rica (yep, that’s the US) and gaining control of a magical tower while all the tribes coded as Indigenous Peoples stood around and cheered. It had an undertone of the colonialist white savior to it that, again, is likely unintentional but still uncomfortable to read.

To my mind, deeper worldbuilding could have balanced these two unfortunate dynamics. We know that this world is a future remnant of some kind of global disaster plus magic. But, we have little knowledge of how that disaster shaped geopolitics or racial/ethnic identities. Did societies fall back on a kind of isolationist tribalism that could explain how separate the Victorian-style cities are from the Indigenous-coded populations? Are the Angles analogous to colonial England or something less squicky?

What we do have worldbuilding wise paints a tantalizing picture of a new, different world, but it isn’t enough to not fill in the blanks from history in a way that leads to unfortunate implications for racial dynamics. An explicit primary protagonist of color, or two, would have gone a long way as well to balance these dynamics as well. Having the Indigenous-coded populations be more racially diverse could have also worked well to minimize the sense that Lucinda is a white savior coming into a predominantly non-white culture and ‘taking over’ their magic.

Final Score: 7/10

Raven, Fire and Ice features robust and well-written trio of female protagonists in a unique setting that combines steampunk fantasy with a murder mystery. While certain plot threads worked better than others for me, it is an overall engaging read and I look forward to the sequel. I especially hope that the sequel addresses some of the more unfortunate implications in racial dynamics. Again, none of them felt malicious. It’s mostly about juxtaposition and context, not the content per se. I think that a few tweaks could have done much to minimize them, and I’m more than willing to wait and see how the next book deals with Sh’Na and the Ama’Rican nomads. Rather than dismiss it outright, I recommend reading it for yourself. There’s still plenty to enjoy about it!

About the Author

Nita has been writing all of her life in one form or another and loves telling stories. In fact, her head is so full of stories she is grateful to let them out to play. Once out, more stories jump in to fill the space.

When not writing, she loves being outdoors in the garden, walking the dog on the heathland and forests of Cannock Chase, or visiting site of places of interest and national heritage. Any other free time is spent reading, cooking, and drinking wine. She is an avid gamer, with such classic tabletop games as “Dungeons and Dragons,” and “The Call of Cthulhu,” to name a few. She also likes making flavored alcohol, and her damson gin has been blamed for many a headache. No one has yet learned to say no though.

Nita Round can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and even has a channel on YouTube. Make sure to visit her website, too!

Raven, Fire and Ice is available for purchase on Amazon and Barnes and Noble.

Note: The author of this review received a copy of the book in exchange for a free and honest review.


Images Courtesy of Nita Round and Regal Crest Enterprises

Bi, she/her. Gretchen is a Managing Editor for the Fandomentals. An unabashed nerdy fangirl and aspiring sci/fi and fantasy author, she has opinions about things like media, representation, and ethics in storytelling.

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I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the book reviews here! Pretty much everything that’s been recommended, I’ve taken a shot on and liked, so I’ll check this book out.

The Tiger’s Daughter by K Arsenault Rivera remains my favorite of the books I’ve learned about from this site, and I can’t wait until the sequel hits in a few months. Gretchen, you keep right on with these reviews and recommendations, and I’ll keep trying them!

Books

Creator Corner: Interview with Author Mirah Bolender

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A few weeks back, my city hosted a week-long book fair, complete with panels, book readings, sales, and a whole bunch of other goodies a book nerd like me can’t get enough of. Of course, I couldn’t stay away from the panel entitled, “Fearless Women in Sci-Fi and Fantasy.” That’s my peak aesthetic. While there, I got the pleasure of listening to debut author Mirah Bolender talk about her debut novel, City of Broken Magic. I also managed to snag an ARC (advanced reader copy) of her book, and she graciously consented to do an interview with me. If you like fearless female protagonists and magical bomb squads, you’re going to want to check out City of Broken Magic.

Gretchen: What got you into writing? Did you grow up knowing you wanted to be a writer or come to it more recently?

Mirah Bolender: I’ve been writing since childhood. My uncle recently unearthed an old photo album of me at 10 years old, with the note that “Mirah wants to be a children’s book writer and illustrator when she grows up.” The exact direction hasn’t always been clear, but the writing always has been.

G: What drew you to writing fantasy in particular?

MB: Almost every single piece of media I enjoy is fantasy or science fiction. It always feels fresh, inventive, or engaging, and I’m a sucker for inventive world building and fun characters. Fantasy provides a much wider playground. Also, I can’t write nonfiction to save my life.

G: I’d love to know more about the moment it clicked for you that you wanted to write this specific book. When did you realize, “I have a novel?

MB: I cannibalized a lot of old story concepts to fill in gaps. Since the original piece began as a prompt, it wasn’t very balanced and catered more toward checking off boxes, but the more I eliminated the newer, stranger bits, the more I realized that the makeshift mortar worked. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of having a five-year-old idea finally work in a plot, and I had about eight of these old threads coming together. I really wanted to see where it led, so I kept writing, and kept writing… 75,000 words later I realized this was becoming a monster itself and I loved it!

G: The setting for City of Broken Magic is early industrial/late 19th-early 20th century, was that purely an aesthetic choice or is there some other significance to it?

MB: The characters came first, so the world was shaped in response to my first image of them and the equipment they used. I wanted the setting to be modern enough to accommodate what I had, but also not too modern as to limit the fantasy aspect. A lot of times when a fantasy happens in contemporary times, it becomes limited by the real world—by locations, by politics, or otherwise. I wanted there to be no illusions that this was operating in a completely different world, and I wanted the freedom to explore from a blank slate.

G: City of Broken Magic features what amounts to a magical bomb squad, how did you come up with that idea?

MB: It actually came through multiple steps. My original concept had the monsters less substantial, nightmares to be driven off by sunlight. I changed it up for a story prompt in class—“A day on the job,” where it became a more physical monster. Then where did it come from, if not a nightmare? The more I wrote, the more the context came together to become what it is now.

G: This is a two-parter, but they go together: 1) What is your favorite thing about your primary characters? 2) Summarize each of them in a sentence of 20 words or less, if you can.

MB: I think my favorite things about my primary characters are how easy it is to write Laura, and how fantastic Clae is for grumpy exposition. Sometimes I’ll start writing another story and have to stop and say, Wait a second, I’m writing Laura all over again. She’s become my default character voice and it’s hard separating from it. If I were to summarize them, they’d be:

Laura: “Come back here and say that to my face!”

Clae: “Bite off more than you can chew and then CHEW IT!”

G: What stories/authors inspire you when you’re feeling out of steam or like the creative juices aren’t flowing?

MB: Revisiting anything I enjoy helps. Last year I was watching Return of the Jedi on TV, and I had the strongest urge to create something even half as cool… after that I wouldn’t put down my notebook to pay full attention to the movie. It doesn’t always give you a direction, but sometimes that excitement is all you need to kickstart motivation again.

G: As a debut author, what was the most useful piece of advice you were given during the writing, querying, or publication process?

MB: Ironically, the best piece of advice was that I can ask for advice. Everyone I’ve worked with so far has been phenomenal in teaching and supporting me through the publishing process, but, like in every piece of work, there’s inevitably one or two details that slip through the cracks— what seems obvious to the experienced isn’t always such to me. So long as you’ve done some research and are genuine in your questions, there’s no reason not to ask for more details. If you know more about how things work you can better do your job, which will help them do their job, and together you can succeed! Sometimes I get bogged down by the mentality of ‘I can’t bother anyone,’ so they reach out to check in on me and make sure everything’s okay.

G: What’s coming up next for you? Any other projects you’re working on that you can tell us or hint to us about?

MB: City of Broken Magic is actually the first planned in a series, so I’m working on book two at the moment.

G: Oooh, that’s exciting! Anything else you want to share with us before we go?

MB: If you’re writing, try to keep track of your old ideas. It could easily be that you just haven’t found the right setting for them yet.

G: Thank you so much for the interview!

MB: You’re welcome! Thanks for having me.

About Mira Bolender

Mirah Bolender graduated from college with majors in creative writing and art in May 2014. A lifelong traveler, she has traveled and studied overseas, most notably in Japan, and these experiences are reflected in her work. City of Broken Magic is her debut fantasy novel.

City of Broken Magic will be available for purchase later this month, on November 20th, though you can read an excerpt over on Tor.com to get you hyped up. Stay tuned for a review, which will be released on publication day.

In the meantime, check out Mirah Bolender on Twitter and visit her website to keep up to date on all her work.


Images Courtesy of Mirah Bolender and Tor

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Analysis

Past Looks Back from Terrier

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Image Courtesy of Penguin Random House

Terrier contains many firsts for Tamora Pierce. Published in 2006, it surprises the reader with the first person journal format. Previously Pierce used close third person, but this works’s for Beka’s story. It also gives the reader their first glimpse into Tortall’s past. Pierce sets this book in 246 HE, almost two hundred years before her other novels. This also is her first police and crime novel. While she dabbled in crime in the Alanna books, and mentioned the Lord Provost, now she tells us how the police system in Tortall works. Or, used to work, we hope.

Spoilers for all of Terrier and for all of Pierce’s other novels

So, What Happened?

Terrier opens with a flashback to George’s youth. Eleni bailed him out of the Guard station and told him about his famous Guard, then called Dogs, ancestress. Then we jump to 244 HE in the past, where we meet Tunstall, Clary, and the Lord Provost. The Lord Provost tells how he caught a gang of Rats, because eight-year-old Beka Cooper tracked one down.

Then, we see Beka on her first day of Puppy training, where she’s assigned to work with Tunstall and Clary as her mentors. She stumbles initially, given her shyness and overconfidence. But eventually, she grows into her job. Beka also connects to a friend from her past, Tansy, who’s married to the grandson of the most corrupt landlord in Corus. A killer called the Shadow Snake killed Tansy’s son Roland. Tansy gives her a strange stone that her husband claimed would change their fortunes. Beka and her Dogs discover that it’s fire opals, mined by Crookshank, Tansy’s grandfather-in-law.

Through her magic with ghosts and dust-spinners, Beka tracks the opals and the Shadow Snake. Crookshank killed 17 people to keep his opals secret. Beka befriends Rosto, Kora, and Aniki, new members of the Rogue’s court from Scanra. She divides her time between the opals, and the Shadow Snake. Crookshank blames the Rogue for Roland’s death, and the kidnapping of his grandson.

Eventually, Beka discovers the location of Crookshank’s mine, and the Dogs move in. They rescue the current work crew, dig up the dead crews, and arrest the guards. A riot starts the next day after the news of Crookshank’s mine breaks. Rosto locates the Shadow Snake and Herum, Tansy’s husband. They rescue Herum, and discover the Shadow Snake was Yates Noll, and his mother, ‘the kindly’ baker. The book ends when Rosts becomes the new Rogue.

Past and It’s Benefits

Present and Past with Pounce and Poverty

One of Pierce’s successes is how she links the present and the past together. She does this several ways, through character links, and through class links. The most obvious character link is Pounce. Pierce draws on the emotions regarding the cat and constellation that followed Alanna from In the Hand of the Goddess on. Pounce also follows Beka, and we see how this spirit cat became who he was for Alanna. She uses him to tie us to Beka and her story. Pounce also grows in this story, being somewhat cattier than in Song of the Lioness. “Pounce trotted past the newcomers, carrying a black kitten … I cannot let you maul me about. Do it to him.” (427). In doing so, we see how his patience grows from past to present.

Pierce also uses her ties to the past significantly. She opens the book with Eleni bailing out a young George. Eleni tells him about, “Rebakah Cooper … She was a fierce and law-abiding and loyal, my son. All that I want for you. … Steal and you shame her.” (6). Afterwards, Eleni asks the Goddess to guide him on Beka’s path, instead of the theiving path he eventually takes. By utilizing irony here, as well as at the end, when Rosto plans to build the Dancing Dove, we see how the universe connects past and present.

Also in Eleni’s prologue is the revelation George started stealing because she couldn’t afford to feed them enough. This ties into the other theme that ties present and past together, that of poverty. Beka is the first POV from the lower class since Daine, and Daine talked mostly to the nobility. She counts coppers, and worries about rent. Even though the Provost fostered her, she remains part of the lower classes, which provides valuable insight.

Women’s Rights – Knights, Priestesses, and Pedestals

Lady Knight Sabine of Macayhill proves one of the most influential secondary characters in all of Terrier. She is the first lady knight that we meet that never once is treated differently because of her gender. Alanna struggles with acceptance of her gender. Kel succeeds only despite prejudice against female knights. With Sabine, we see the age that inspires them, where lady knights were never doubted, never disparaged for their skills. Sabine rescues Beka from a tavern brawl that would have killed any other Puppy. She helps Tunstall, Clary, and Beka track down Crookshank’s mine and harry Duwall, one of the Rogue’s chiefs. Her fellow knights and nobles respect her. It’s immensely refreshing.

We also see respect for women’s rights in the religious arena. Fulk often sexually harasses women. When Beka’s Dogs ask him to identify the fire opal, he harasses Beka. They stop him. Clary threatens to send him before the Goddess’s temple. Tunstall clarifies. “At the last eclipse, the Mother of Starlight temple chose Magistrates. Goodwin’s now the Goddess’s Magistrate … She signs a writ, and the warrior [ladies] with the sickles come for him.” (86). While violence against women remains a problem for Tortall, past and present, it’s a step in the right direction. It shows the slow steps of progress.

Finally, in a more meta-textual level, women now have the right to be villains. There’s equality between evil women and evil men for the first time in Pierce’s novels. Roger, Ozorne, Blayce, Rubinyan, all male. Now, the Shadow Snake is the primary antagonist, and she’s Mistress Noll. Yes, we’ve had female secondary antagonists, Imajane, and Delia come to mind. But if you put women on pedestals and don’t let them be flawed, then you’ve only entered another phase of misogyny. Pierce takes steps to correct this here.

The Past and It’s Problems

Slavery

The thing that shocked me most in Terrier was the depiction of slavery. After the very successful Trickster’s Duology, to include slavery and to not even mention freeing slaves dissapointed me. In addition, this is the first we hear of any slavery being in Tortall’s past. While the importance of not whitewashing history is clear to me, Pierce simply could have not included slavery in Terrier and in Tortall’s past. Not only is it slavery, it is child slavery, and state sponsered slavery, and a complete reversal of the slave positions of Scanra and Tortall.

Child slavery proves a significant problem, when Beka investigates the Shadow Snake. She uncovers people who sold their children and claimed the Snake took them, or children genuinely taken for the slave trade. “Slave taking is disliked in Corus, but it isn’t illegal. Kidnapping children without their parents’ leave is illegal though.” (79). To clarify, parents can sell their children into slavery, but other people cannot. It is morally disgusting, and Beka prostests it only minimally.

We know the Crown sponsers slavery because not only is there a, “Ministry of Slave Sales” (384), but illegal slave markets get broken up by Beka and the Guard several times. The ‘illegal slavers’ set up a stable to “look like a proper slave market.” (384). After seeing Aly destroy the slave markets in Rajmuat, after seeing a rebellion that freed slaves, this grows intolerable. Scanra also doesn’t have many slaves since they can’t feed free citizens, let alone enslaved ones. Given that slaves work most of the farms in Scanra in the present, it feels Pierce merely flipped Scanra’s present with Tortall’s past to make the past darker. That doesn’t sit well with me. It shows insensitivity on issues she handled well previously.

Diversity and the Watsonian Lens

On a Doylist level, the amount of diversity in Terrier show’s Pierce’s advancing commitment to intersectional feminism. Take Sergeant Ahuda, the chief of the Guard Post where Beka trains, for example. “She is a stocky black woman with some freckle and hair she has straightened and cut just below her ears. Her family is in Carthak, far in the south. They say she treats trainees the way she does in vengeance for how the Carthakis treated her family as slaves.” (25). While the last sentance is dubious, she still remains a POC woman in charge of several dozen people. That’s wonderful, and Pierce develops her more than she did Sarge, in The Immortals Quartet.

In addition, Pierce shows people of color moving around Corus. “[The Rogue]’d foreigners with him, two Yamanis with their hair in topknots. With them stood the Carthaki who’d had Kayfer’s ear my first knight at the Court.” (399) Bazhir also move around the streets, though in a slightly more insular fashion. This reflects their isolation in Woman Who Rides Like A Man. This amazes from a Doylist sense, that Pierce moved so far from that contentious book.

But, in a Watsonian lens of thinking about books, it proves problematic. The diversity here only highlights the lack of diversity in her first series. Song of the Lioness doesn’t even mention non-white characters until the third book, and I find that depiction contentious. Something had to change between Tortall’s past and the present we see here that changed Tortall’s opinion of people of color. We know it results from the chronological evolution of Pierce’s feminism, but still. It also makes you wonder what happened that Lady Knights no longer were accepted. It may be this question is answered in the next too books. But still.

Police Novels and Modern Feminism

I don’t believe it especially controversial to mention that for the last decade or so, we’ve started having conversations about police brutality and corruption. It spawned movements, endless articles, and websites devoted to tracking cases of brutality and corruption. So, this makes it hard to see feminism and feminist movements in Police and Crime novels like Terrier. From our perspective now, we see a novel such as Terrier that contains moments of ‘police’ corruption and brutality, and find it difficult to endorse. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth looking at.

Thankfully, no police brutality against unarmed and disenfranchised victims occurs in Terrier to my judgement. I might miss something, but the closest thing to brutality I saw lies in the ‘nap tap’. “All of us love that hammer blow of baton against jaw, even if it doesn’t always knock a Rat out. Goodwin has the city’s record for the highest number of perfectly delivered nap taps that end with a Rat carried away, stone unconscious.” (192). Beka hesitates at one point about hitting a tavern brawler that is attacking her with her baton, fearful that she’ll seriously hurt him. They do use riot gear at one point, when a riot forms when the news of Crookshank’s mines gets out. But those two moments are the closest the Provost’s Dogs in Terrier come to modern worries of police brutality.

Police Corruption

Unfortunately, corruption proves differently. Someone kills a Dog that gambled with weighted dice, and Beka sympathizes with him. “Of course there are crooked Dogs. I can name two handfuls myself. … I do not like that he was crooked. But he’d still been a Dog.” (201). The insular community of the Dogs allows some exceptions for bad behavior if the perpetrator was a Dog.

Corruption also comes in the Happy Bags. “Other Dogs collect Happy Bags from each business that wants to know otherwise ill-paid Dogs will watch over them with diligence.” (92). In addition they collect from the Rogue which buys some peace between his Court and the Dogs. “Not taking offense over a bit of briber, are you? … On the very night your Dogs are here to collect their bribes from the Rogue. … That’s different. That’s for all the work every one of us does, to keep the streets orderly.” (107).  But it’s not just for keeping the streets orderly. Dogs get personal bribes as well as the institution of the Happy Bag. And their bribe from the Rogue is not only in repayment for public order, but also keeps the Dogs away from several places. Places where the Rogue hides stolen goods, and where Yates hides from the Dogs.

The Dogs get funding almost entirely from the Happy Bags. Beka does not have a single qualm about the bribes that fund her work. She simply accepts it, and in some way the reader accepts it as well. Or they would if the conversation over police didn’t become so strident in recent years.

The mostly non-existent brutality and the blatant corruption make it difficult to read feminism in this book. After all, intersectional feminist groups spent years discussing and protesting this kind of behavior.

Conclusion

Overall, I believe that Terrier continues Pierce’s trend of increasing feminism. The way she includes diversity, even though it creates a Watsonian problem, convinces me of that. The depiction of slavery remains problematic, but I believe that her overall attempts at feminism trump that. It’s also balanced by the central nature of slavery in the Trickster’s Duology. However, the depiction of police corruption makes this book a harder sell to the modern liberal audience than when Pierce first published it.

Hopefully, Pierce’s expanding feminism continues as we enter the books that I have not yet read or reviewed.


Image Courtesy of Random House

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Books

The Field of Cormallen

Katie

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cormallen

About three years and 1,123 pages later (oh my god), we’ve finally made our way through the traditional climax of The Lord of the Rings. The Ring has been destroyed, Sauron’s blown away on the wind, and we get a nicely eucatostrophic crying party on the Field of Cormallen. But we still have, in my copy, just shy of one hundred pages to go. This is good. I am prepared to start fights with anyone who disagrees.

The Field of Cormallen is concerned with aftermath: those which are to be explored and those which are not. After the brutal and grinding efforts of Frodo and Sam are complete, the destruction of Sauron and his far-flung works is startlingly easy, dispatched of in a paragraph or two (this is something both Mytly and WanderingUndine pointed out in our discussion of “Mount Doom”). But the personal and psychological ramifications of the past thousand pages are just starting to unspool and will be the focus for the rest of the work.

The Lord of the Rings isn’t allegorical. Tolkien will roll over in his grave and send you a ghost slap for thinking it. But it is concerned almost entirely with individuals over systems. It’s Tolkien’s strength and arguable weakness, and I think one of the things that most definitely sets his work apart from subsequent fantasy (particularly any fantasy that sits anywhere in the realm of the label “gritty”). With the Ring destroyed, Sauron and his works are largely obliterated off-screen. With the major threat removed, Aragorn settles relatively simply and easily into his kingship. There is very little question of logistics.

This isn’t because Tolkien didn’t think about these issues. His letters show an awareness that Aragorn’s kingship was largely grounded in personal charisma and context, and that—particularly after his death—the kingship of Gondor and the stability of Middle-earth would quickly come into question. But this simply isn’t what Tolkien cared about, and never really has been. We’ve talked before about how, on nearly every level, the struggles that Tolkien’s characters face are psychological, moral, internal things. The external threats—up to and including Sauron—are simply narrative facets of those internal dilemmas. It’s sensible, then, that denouement of The Lord of the Rings will be about the internal consequences. For all of our characters, but especially for our hobbits. And most especially, for Frodo.

cormallen

The Field of Cormallen

Tolkien’s whole theory of a proper faerie story hinges on the concept of eucatastrophe, as we’ve touched on many times before. And the Field of Cormallen is the pinnacle of the concept, the whole chapter functioning as a sharp, unexpected turn from the darkness that had come before. After two chapters of torment and devastation everything is suddenly soft, quiet, and feels oversaturated with light and color. It’s the narrative equivalent of a sudden gasp: such an unexpected boon, a joy that pierces like swords.

When Sam awoke, he found that he was lying on some soft bed, but over him gently swayed wide beechen boughs, and through their young leaves sunlight glimmered, green and gold. All the air was full of a sweet mingled sent.

And later:

They stepped out of the beech grove in which they had lain, and passed on to a long green lawn, glowing in sunshine, bordered by stately dark-leaved trees laden with scarlet blossom. Behind them they could hear the sound of falling water, and a stream ran down before them between flowering banks, until it came to a greenwood at the lawn’s foot and passed them on under an archway of trees, through which they saw the shimmer of water far away.

Sam awakes in Ithilien to an impossibly pretty and peaceful scene (just down the road from the waterfall fort where he and Frodo experienced their last bit of real peace). Gandalf is there, laughing, his beard “gleaming like pure snow in the twinkling of the leafy sunlight.” Sam jumps up and laughs, and cries, and when he asks Gandalf “is everything sad going to come untrue?” you almost believe that it will, or could.

This only continues when Sam gets his wish granted almost immediately on the Field of Cormallen and hears himself lodged forever into songs and tales; it continues when he and Frodo run up to Strider who reminds that “it is a long way, is it not, from Bree, where you did not like the look of me?” And maybe most of all when the Fellowship reunites (mostly) and stays up talking together late in the night, entirely unthreatened by Black Riders or orcs or any other immediate or obvious danger.

At last the glad day ended; and when the Sun was gone and the round Moon rode slowly above the mists of the Anduin and flickered through the fluttering leaves, Frodo and Sam sat under the whispering trees amid the fragrance of fair Ithilien; and they talked deep into the night with Merry and Pippin and Gandalf, and after a while Legolas and Gimli joined them.

It does seem like everything sad could come untrue. But that’s not the sort of book we’re dealing with.

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Frodo at a Distance

The events of the last two and a half books have obviously made their marks on everyone. Aragorn and Gandalf are more elevated, distant and super-human (since, well, they both technically are). Merry and Pippin utterly baffle Sam with the three inches added to their height and their new status as knights of Rohan and Gondor. Legolas’s sea fixation has only grown:

To the Sea, to the Sea! The white gulls are crying,
The wind is blowing, and the white foam is flying.
West, west away, the round sun is falling.
Grey ship, grey ship, do you hear them calling,
The voices of my people that have gone before me?
I will leave, I will leave the woods that bore me.
For our days are ending and our years failing.
I will pass the wide waters lonely sailing.
Long are the waves of the Last Shore falling,
Sweet are the voices of the Lost Isle calling,
In Eressea, in Elvenhome that no man can discover
Where the leaves fall not: land of my people forever!

Lil’ Melancholy Kid Katie had a lot of feelings about this poem. While I want to make fun of Legolas for sounding like a kid who studied abroad by the ocean for the first time and is applying to MFA programs (or like the inverse of the coastal snob who moves to the Midwest and can’t stop looking down at the Great Lakes), but my heart wouldn’t really be in it. Yearn away, buddy.

But really, I was most fascinated by Frodo in his chapter—or, more specifically, his relative absence. Although Frodo is largely at the center of all the celebrations, he is largely absent from the narrative itself. We skip Frodo’s awakening in order to focus on Sam’s. We get Sam’s reaction to the celebrations on the Field of Cormallen, his reaction to the tales and adventures of Pippin and Merry and the others.

I’d imagine this is largely because, had we gotten Frodo’s reactions to things, this would have been a very different chapter. On the slopes of Mount Doom after the destruction of the Ring, Frodo is hardly cheerful, as he gently puts down Sam’s desire to escape. It may not be Sam’s tendency to give up, he says, “but it’s like things are in the world. Hopes fail. An end comes. We have only a little time to wait, now. We are lost in ruin and downfall, and there is no escape.” For quite a while, at this point, this has been Frodo’s absolute best-case scenario. He would fulfill his Quest, and then he would die. He does not seem to be afraid of this or even particularly upset by it: instead, he faces it with a calm resignation, thinking that this is simply how things have to be.

I’m not sure that I’d go so far as to say that Frodo doesn’t want to be saved. After all, he does seem happy to see Strider again, and to talk with Merry and Pippin and Gandalf under the trees. But it’s also not clear that Sam’s sense of eucatastrophe is shared with Frodo. Even with the Ring destroyed, his emotional status remains unclear and largely blocked off to the reader. Given what he’s just experienced, and what he’s lost, it’s hard not to look at the Field of Cormallen from Frodo’s perspective and feel something sadder, as the poor guy is dressed up in orc garb, saddled with an unwished-for-sword, then forced hear someone sing his trauma at him.

Not much of this is made explicit, of course. But given what’s to come, and how Frodo ended his last chapter, it’s intriguing to me how emotionally inaccessible he is to the reader and how during one of the primary celebrations of the book’s climax he remains inscrutable and tangential. It’s good groundwork for Frodo’s journey after this, and subtly highlights that the emotional and psychological aftermath of Frodo’s experience still needs to be unpacked.

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The End of Evil

This interest in the Quest’s ripple effect on individuals is interesting in light of the fact that any large-scale or systemic ripples are almost entirely absent. Sauron himself is literally blown away by the wind:

“The realm of Sauron is ended!” said Gandalf. “The Ring-bearer has fulfilled his Quest.” As the Captains gazed south to the Land of Mordor, it seemed to them that, black against the pall of cloud, there rose a huge shape of shadow, impenetrable, lightning-crowned, filling all the sky. Enormous it reared above the world, and stretched out towards them a vast threatening hand, terrible but impotent: for even as it leaned over them, a great wind took it, and it was all blown away, and passed; and then a hush fell.

 And this destructive is definitive and all-encompassing, leaving little-to-no mess to clean up.

As when death smites the swollen brooding thing that inhabits their crawling hill and holds them all in sway, ants will wander witless and purposeless and then feebly die, so the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless; and some slew themselves, or cast themselves in pits, or fled wailing to hide in holes an dark lightless places far from hope.

Though Tolkien is doing this purposefully, I do have a lot of sympathy with those who find this unsatisfying. So much effort is put into the interiority and choice of the Fellowship that it seems… unfair, or narratively unbalanced, to have the forces of Sauron so utterly deprived of a sense of self that when the Ring is destroyed they begin to literally commit mass suicide. I don’t necessarily have a solution for this: frankly, at this point, an in-depth look at what happened to those serving under Sauron would be definitively out of place in terms of theme and tone. But I also think that criticisms on this front are warranted. And that it makes the applicability of Tolkien’s story seem limited, at least in this sphere.

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Final Points

  • I was intrigued that Gwaihir and his brother were followed by “all their vassals from the northern mountains, speeding on a gathering wind.” I largely ignore the Eagles when talking about Tolkien because I don’t want to talk about whether they should have just flown the Ring to Mount Doom.  But I am intrigued by the concept of Eagle vassals. How does air feudalism work.
  • Gimli: “I love you, [Pippin], if only because of the pains you have cost me, which I shall never forget.” Harsh but fair.
  • It’s very charming that on the day that he was honored as an international hero and the entire global calendar was reoriented around his actions, Sam is bummed he missed out on all those other neat adventures. Orcs, and talking trees, and leagues of grass, and galloping riders, and glittering caves, and white towers and golden halls, and battles, and tall ships sailing, all these passed before Sam’s mind until he felt bewildered. He even missed an Oliphant!
  • Prose Prize: There was a lot of gentle, lovely prose this time around. Everything feels especially soft and kind after trucking across Gorgoroth for a few dozen pages. This is my favorite though: And all the host laughed and wept, and in the midst of their merriment and tears the clear voice of the minstrel rose like silver and gold, and all men were hushed. And he sang to them, now in the Elven-tongue, now in the speech of the West, until their hearts, wounded with sweet words, overflowed, and their joy was like swords, and they passed in through out to regions where pain and delight flow together and tears are the very wine of blessedness. Joy like swords is about as Tolkien-y as one can get.
  • Contemporary to this Chapter: Everyone’s back together, so we’re retiring this little section this week! So, for the last time: as Frodo and Sam slept for two weeks Celeborn and Galadriel (having already repelled three assaults on Lórien) jumped up to Dol Goldur, destroyed it, and restored Mirkwood. Does this mean the spiders are gone too? In any case, the forest having been cleansed out of its name, Mirkwood is Eryn Lasgalen now, the Wood of Greenleaves. Presumably everyone else sings and cries and takes lots of naps in that dappled Ithilien sunlight.
  • We’ll be back on November 15th for “The Steward and the King.”  Please brush the dust off of your favorite Eowyn/Faramir fanfiction from middle school (Middle-school) and review it, it will be on the test.

Art Credits: Images, in order of appearance, are courtesy of Ted Nasmith, Lorenzo Daniele, s-u-w-i, Ted Nasmith again, and Francesco Amadio

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